Thursday, June 18, 2015
Liberty and Justice for All
I have just finished my second week student-lawyering at the county PD office. A lot of people have been asking me what it's like, or if I still want to be a lawyer (like this would be the best time to decide I didn't). Since the past few days have been particularly emotional for me, I'll give a general overview of the experience.
In some ways, working for the PD has some of the same elements as working in a behavior school. I come in constant contact with the criminal element that's brilliant enough to get caught for some reason or another. Most of the people I see are arrested or cited on rather minor charges -- possession of drugs, solicitation of prostitution, petty theft (shoplifting), and other relatively minor charges. Part of me is amazed that this is what our local law enforcement focuses their time and energy on. Are drugs and prostitution illegal? Yes. Is it worth thousands of dollars to arrest, prosecute, and jail each individual that gets arrested? Probably not. These are the people that are going to continue to use drugs or offer prostitution services.... The cost-benefit is not there. There are countless individuals that are arrested outside known drug-houses, which means the police are sitting outside a location they know drugs are sold for the sole purpose of arresting people with drugs. When they get out of jail, they are literally going to go back to that same house and buy more drugs. It's a losing battle.
In the past two weeks, I have realized that working in the PD office is like running a marathon. There are always things to do, people to talk to, new people being arrested, and never enough hours in a day. The average Las Vegas PD has 150+ open cases. That means they are responsible for the legal defense of 150+ individuals. The attorney I'm working with handles around 350 cases per year. Each one of those cases is a person... virtually one person for every day of the year.
Do you remember Night Court? A classic 80s NBC sitcom. Judge Harry Stone, the DA, the PD and a cast of courtroom helpers... Weirdly, court is much more like that than I expected. It is a never-ending revolving door of "criminals" moving through the criminal justice system at break-neck speed. In an average morning session (maybe 3 hours), we might deal with 50 cases.
Not all of them are new cases -- let's say 10-15 are new arrests. We have no idea what they were arrested for. We get their information sheet when we get there. We then talk with them for 90 seconds each and see what's going on. The DA may have a plea offer - if they do, we will present that to the client. Many will take the plea just to get out of jail - whether they did it or not. They will plead guilty to possession, or public intoxication, or whatever, do some community service, pay a fine and call it a day ($50 and time served).
Of the remaining individuals we see, about half of those are "status checks". They are the people that pled guilty and now the judge needs to make sure they paid the fine and did the community service. If they did, awesome - case closed. If they didn't (and many don't), or if they have been arrested again (which many do), they may be looking at jail time. We need to explain to the judge why they shouldn't be sent to jail.
Another group of people are simply legal motions - extending the time to pay fines, appearing before the judge for whatever reason.
Despite the speed, all of these cases are relatively easy to deal with. A small portion of our clients maintain their innocence and want to go through the entire legal process. And the wheels of justice move very slowly. If a client wants to go to trial, it will be months at best, or years at worst. A complicated case could take years before it gets to trial & a poor client that can't post bail will sit in jail the entire time - essentially being punished for being poor. Imagine sitting in jail for over a year waiting to prove your innocence. It "breaks" quite a few people. After a while, they give up and if the DA offers them a decent deal, they will take it. Even if they still claim they didn't do it.
Now keep in mind, this is what I do before 10am.
For the rest of the day, we field phone calls, file paperwork, write legal motions, visit with clients (both in and out of jail) and follow up on any upcoming legal actions. If there are any impending trials, those happen in the afternoon.
And when you add it all together, it's mind-numbingly frightening. I'm not even a 'real' PD and I feel incredible pressure to do as much as I can every single day. I also feel incredible empathy for a lot of the clients. Many are arrested because they are poor, or black, or simply don't conform to the idea of what someone expects. We are currently defending a mom that is charged with felony child abuse. She did not abuse her child. The baby was sick, mom took the baby to the hospital and though some incredible miscommunications, the doctors decided the baby's illness was mom's fault. For six months, she's been fighting this while her baby waits in foster care (the baby's health hasn't improved in the past six months)... her trial may happen before the end of the year. Maybe. In the meantime, the baby will continue to wait in foster care.
And in the next six months, while preparing for a trial that will decide if this mother and child are EVER reunited, her attorney will get another 150 clients....